Donald Trump has broken with many of the traditions of U.S. presidents. For one, he is the first to be an executive producer of a reality television show.
This came as a surprise to Carson Kressley. The gay contestant, eliminated last week on The New Celebrity Apprentice, agreed to appear on the series when he learned that Arnold Schwarzenegger would replace Trump as host of the competition.
“I happen to really like [Schwarzenegger], and I think all of us on the cast were under the impression that Trump wasn’t involved in any way. So I think we were all a little surprised when three weeks before the show [aired], he was asking to have his name put back on as an executive producer,” said Kressley, a reality star who first rose to fame in Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Trump — who originated the role of the tough boss who pronounced “You’re fired!” to vying business protégés — came under fire for potential conflicts of interest when Variety reported in December that he would stay on as executive producer of the NBC series. His title raised legal and moral questions of whether a president should be receiving checks from a television network.
Kressley also found himself caught in political crossfire. The overwhelming majority of LGBT people, fearing a rollback of hard-won rights if Trump became president, supported Hillary Clinton in the election. Trump’s win sparked record-breaking protests like the Women’s March and boycotts. Kressley’s participation in the Republican president’s show also incited criticism.
“I got a lot of flak for that, not very nice tweets,” Kressley said. However, when asked if he would do it over again, knowing what he knows now, he replied, “I probably would.”
He lists several reasons why. First, while on the show, he was able to raise visibility and $25,000 for the True Colors Fund, an organization founded by Cyndi Lauper that assists homeless LGBT youth. Kressley sits on its board.
“I think 5 or 6 million people watched the show, and they got to hear about the True Colors Fund, which is so important,” Kressley said. “And LGBTQ homeless youth now more than ever need our support, and they need to know they have a network of people like us that really care about them and are working to make sure they find their way into a safe home.”
“The end justifies the means,” Kressley said of his participation on The New Celebrity Apprentice. “So yeah, I wasn’t happy about it either, but what I am happy about is raising a lot of money for this great charity.”
Like many, Kressley was alarmed by reports of spikes in hate crimes, school bullying, and calls to crisis prevention hotlines since the election. And he is not afraid of speaking out against his executive producer — and president — for setting a poor example.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we have some people in high positions of power that take that bullying tone,” he said. "It endorses it and makes kids feel like it’s OK [to bully]. It’s not OK.”
He had a message for Trump: “Hey, you’re a New Yorker. You’re supposed to be progressive, so what the f are you doing.”
To the LGBT youth being bullied, he extended a message of support.
“There is so much love and support there for you, and you just have to hang on and find it,” said Kressley, who pointed to 24-hour hotlines staffed by the Trevor Project (866-488-7386) as well as resources provided by the True Colors Fund for those in need. “Things might not be great right now, but we’re gonna be there [for you] right now.”
Repeatedly, Kressley also cited the importance of LGBT visibility at a time when many fear the community’s rights could be threatened — fear most recently sparked by a leaked “religious freedom” executive order that could allow widespread discrimination against queer people if signed by Trump.
“The power of being out, the power of being visible, especially in these times, reminds people that we are just like they are,” Kressley said. “We’re more alike than we are different. And we are entitled to the exact same human rights. I think that’s really important, especially right now.”
Kressley cited to his Emmy Award-winning hit, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, as an example of a show that helped moved hearts and minds back when it debuted in 2003.
“The more we’re visible, the better off we are. It helps us build allies,” he said. “That show was fantastically subversive in its own way, because it didn’t have a political agenda. We were just trying to help guys get the job or get the look or get the girl, and we changed a lot of people’s attitudes about gay people, and knowing a gay person makes the politics surrounding us very personal.”
Kressley, who provided sass and sartorial wisdom as the fashion consultant to many a clueless heterosexual man, also took heart from the messages he received from queer youth.
“I’ve had so many young people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy really helped me come out, because I was afraid to speak to my parents about my sexuality. But we watched the show as a family, and they liked all of you guys. I felt that their approval of you made it safer for me to come out,’” Kressley recalled.
“I was just trying to get people out of pleated khakis, quite frankly,” he joked.
Kressley looks forward to a reboot of the series recently announced by Netflix, which will reportedly now focus on “red states” rather than residents of New York City. “If a whole new generation of kids can get that message, wouldn’t that be great?” he asked. Kressley also can’t wait to pass the torch to a new Fab Five, the term used to described the coterie of cultured, fashionable, well-groomed, tasteful, and decorous advisers.
“We had a fantastic time,” he said. “We got to meet Cher and Dolly Parton and win an Emmy and do a Barbara Walters interview and shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and make a music video — we did so many cool things that I’d love to pay that forward and see another group of gay men have that experience.”
Kressley also shot down criticism that the show may dredge up stereotypes of gay men.
“It’s a reality show,” he said. “The guys on the show just like us should be experts in their field, and they’re really representing themselves. If they happen to have great taste or be great cooks or be great decorators, I think that’s something to be celebrated.”
Kressley also had high praise for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo’s reality competition for drag performers, on which he is currently a judge. The show, whose host RuPaul won an Emmy Award in 2016, recently announced the contestants for its ninth season. He's proud to be helping drag reach a wider audience, especially now. Historically, Kressley has witnessed the powerful role of these artists during difficult times.
“Drag queens in many ways have been real superheroes for our community,” Kressley said. “I know that when I was a young man, coming out in the early ’90s, and the AIDS epidemic was still in full swing, a lot of the people that were the most courageous were drag queens. They were out there keeping us laughing and keeping us happy and keeping us hopeful.”
“Drag queens are fantastic entertainers,” he added. “It’s an art form. It’s a part of pop culture. And because of the show, it’s become quite mainstream. I had a drag queen on Celebrity Apprentice. I’m gonna shake things up and bring Alaska 5000 on set. It was great. My mom was like, ‘Who is that fabulous woman?’ And I was like, ‘That was a man, but she’s still fabulous.’”
Kressley has performed in drag, but “mostly for Halloween.” He added, “Unfortunately, I always look like Juliette Lewis. It’s mostly unfortunate for her. I told her that once at an Emmy party, and I don’t think she was really happy about it.”
However, he believes RuPaul would not eliminate him from the show — for a few rounds at least. “I think I would ‘chantay, stay’ for a little while, just on my personality. Probably not my looks, but that’s kind of how I got by in life thus far, so I think I’ll be OK,” he said.
Jokes aside, Kressley has reevaluated his role as a pioneer in reality television, which, through The Apprentice, has helped paved the path toward a Trump presidency. The line between politics and entertainment has never been so blurred.
“When you think of reality stars, you don’t really think of them segueing into politics,” said Kressley, who responded with exasperation about Trump’s recent Celebrity Apprentice plug at the National Prayer Breakfast. “Pray for Arnold.” the president told religious leaders, in response to the show’s ratings.
“The fact that he’s praying and tweeting and concerned about The Celebrity Apprentice is one of the most alarming things I can think of. It’s just a TV show. We’ve got bigger things, bigger problems,” Kressley said.
However, he has been heartened by Hollywood’s response to the election, as exemplified by the many awards speeches that have called out injustices like the recent ban on immigration from majority-Muslim nations. While many right-wing activists have derided these remarks as wailings of the “liberal elite,” Kressley sees these rebellious acts as points of pride.
“Anytime something like this happens, you have to stand up, and you have to speak your mind, and you have to say and do what’s right,” Kressley said. “That’s a wonderful thing about our country — you can have that open dialogue. I think the entertainment community, the gay community, everybody is coming together to voice their concerns.”